Satyajit Ray’s greatness as a film director obscures us to his writing. In an earlier blog, I had reviewed a collection of short stories by Satyajit Ray. Recently I read a short, obscure autobiography of Satyajit Ray – Childhood Days. It’s not an autobiography in the conventional sense. Half of the book is about Ray’s childhood, about his family, his aunts, uncles, school days and so on. The other half is about his experience of film making, making of various films he made, explained mainly for the uninitiated reader.
The book was first published in Sandesh, a magazine Ray edited and his family members contribute to, in episodic bursts. Many had shown interest in translating it into English but Ray refused. Later Penguin took it up and the result was this book. The first half of the book takes you to the Calcutta of the 30s and 40s in which Ray grew up. Ray had a legion of interesting relatives so it makes for interesting reading.
He had an eventful time at school – Mitra – too. There were all types of pranks played by boys. There were funny teachers. There were tensed moments. Etc.
Equally interesting are the tit bits about the India of the 30s and 40s Ray grew up in. Ray was witness to the coming of the motor car. Some of the things he says may be unimaginable today, like pamphlets being dropped by helicopters to promote products.
Cine lovers reading this book will be particularly interested in the details Ray shares about the making of various movies he made for children. (His movies on adult themes have not been included in the book.) Ray the perfectionist comes through the details. You will be surprised by the challenges involved in the process of movie making. Ray recalls many scenes which occupied very little screen space but were very troublesome to shoot.
The one I found most challenging and even funny was a scene from Gupi Bagha Phire Elo (Gupi and Bagha return), a sequel to Gopi Gain Bagha Bain. Ray needed to shoot a scene which would include a tiger. A person from Chennai (then Madras) contacted him and assured him that he would be able to arrange for one. Ray arrived in Chennai with his entourage and the person took him to a circus owner.
The circus owner assured him that he had a healthy tiger. After a while Ray sensed there was something wrong: A while had lapsed but the tiger hadn’t been shown. Ray demanded to see the tiger but the middle man said the tiger was all right and there was no need to see it. Ray insisted upon seeing the tiger and said he wouldn’t take the tiger for his shooting unless he saw it. Then they brought the beast. It was a mangy old cranky tiger. Ray rejected it.
That day, some search and anxiety later, they got to know about another tiger, and went to see it. This one was perfect, a young raging big cat. But that wasn’t an end to their woes.
The scene was - the tiger would play a royal guard guarding the key to royal treasury. The key would be located in a square cleft on a wall under which the tiger would sit. The hero had a special musical gift: which could freeze listeners to their spot when he sang. To take the key from the cleft, the hero would sing to the tiger putting the animal under his spell so that it couldn’t move when the hero would go and get the royal treasury key from the cleft.
The tiger had been tranquilized but as the camera started panning the tiger started to move setting up an alarm among the crew members: the effect of the tranquilizer had worn off. How much they had to go through to shoot the scene tells the reader something about the patience and improvisation film making requires. Ray has recalled many more instances like this.
These are just the lighter aspects of the book. The serious reader may look for when and how Ray’s interest in films began. As is natural, there is no specific time, day, or year when Ray began being interested in films.
As with any artistic interest, it began slowly moving from one thing to another, small to big. As a boy Ray was interested in photography (the book as a photo of a young Satyajit with his mother taken by none but the camera itself which Ray had configured to photograph without the assistance of a human). And there was a practice of film watching – mainly foreign ones - too.
Ray has avoided delving too deep into anything to sustain the book’s light and juvenile touch. So it might disappoint those looking for a scholarly study of the great man, but those just interested to know about the world of Satyajit Ray, his family, times and influences, may not be disappointed.